Why translation can be a rewarding professional career option for multilingual parents

If you speak more than one language, chances are you’ve considered translation or interpreting as a flexible career option.

Maybe you’ve already discounted it, assuming you need to be perfectly bilingual in two or more languages. Or you might consider it more of a gig, something to fill the gaps between real jobs.

Although Brits aren’t renowned for our language skills, 38% of UK citizens do speak more than one language.

Whether you’ve learned a second language while living abroad or were lucky enough to grow up bilingual, translation is a viable career change option for parents who want to escape the corporate world and use their language skills. In fact, translation made Talented Ladies Club’s list of six career opportunities for work at home mums.

Find out what a career in translation involves, why it’s the ideal flexible job for multilingual parents, and how to get started.

What does professional translation work involve?

At its most basic level, translation involves turning one language into another. Usually, the goal is to create a document that sounds like it was written directly in the new language. You could be forgiven for thinking that Google Translate takes care of this for us – it’s certainly got smarter over the past decade or so. 

But Google Translate only gets us so far; there is still a real need for human translators. When closing a deal with a business abroad, legal translators ensure that the legal documents are clear, fluent, and will stand up in court.

Multilingual advertising experts help businesses sell abroad by writing sparkling copy for new markets. Pharmaceutical companies need translators who know the ins and outs of the industry to accurately translate documents that could mean the difference between life or death. No robot has so far proven capable of any of these things.

Interpreting is a separate discipline which involves translating speech. It can help people access public services or participate in international conferences. While most interpreting projects are ‘on-site’, the Covid-19 crisis accelerated the move to virtual conferencing.

Who makes a good professional translator?

Translation is, in essence, writing. Most professional translators only translate into the language they know best: their mother tongue (or dominant language). 

You may be surprised to learn that although your reading and listening skills in your second language need to be top-notch, your spoken or written fluency of that language is less important.

If you’ve learned a language to degree level (around C1-C2 in the CEFR framework) or spent years working abroad, then the odds are you’ve got a good foundation. You do, however, need an excellent command of your mother tongue – or be prepared to put in the work to improve your grammar and writing skills.

Translators usually specialise in one or more subject areas. Linguists with a background in a particular industry or sector have a proven specialism and find it easier to market their skills.

For instance, my professional background is in marketing and advertising. I now specialise in writing and translating marketing copy for Italian companies that want to sell to English-speaking countries. 

You can also specialise in a specialist interest or hobby. I’ve heard of translators who specialise in coffee, wellbeing, and yoga. If you have the knowledge, why not?

Why is a career change to translation an ideal option for professional parents?

It’s certainly not the case that all freelance translators are parents. But translation does make an ideal career change for parents who want more flexibility and control over their work without sacrificing the opportunity for a rewarding career.

The vast majority of translators work from home. The hours are usually flexible: the only requirement is that you meet the agreed deadline. Beyond that, you’re free to work whenever suits you, whether that’s during the school day or once the kids are in bed.

It can take a while to build up a portfolio of translation clients. You don’t suddenly announce you’re a translator and find yourself fully booked the next day. 

Translation work tends to come in the form of projects. This makes it easier to scale your workload up or down according to your time and commitments. Taking it slowly allowed me to discover my strengths, learn what projects to avoid, and start to make a name for myself without getting overwhelmed.

I started my translation business when my first daughter was a year old. I slowly built it up, taking on projects during naptimes, evenings, and weekends until she was eligible for free childcare hours.

When my second daughter came along, I downed tools and claimed six months’ maternity allowance. Instead of harming my business, when I came back from maternity leave I found myself booked up for a month. 

How do you become a translator? 

If I’ve piqued your curiosity and you’re keen to know more about a career in translation, then there are a couple of risk-free steps you can take.

A low-cost way to dip your toe into the water is to attend a local translation industry event. The Institute of Translators and Interpreters has a number of regional groupswhere members often meet up for a chinwag and training. In these pandemic-stricken times, it’s even easier to join events from the comfort of your laptop.

Explore the two main routes into translation: a Master’s in Translation and the Diploma in Translation exam.

Both paths require time and money, but you’ll find it much easier to land your first projects with one of these under your belt. You could theoretically find work without a qualification, however it’s likely to be poorly paid. I didn’t have much luck applying to agencies until I’d successfully passed the DipTrans. 

Have a think about how you can capitalise on your past working experience. If you have professional writing experience, for example if you’re a copywriter or work in publishing or editing, you might be able to side-step a qualification.

Translators with solid marketing, medical, legal, or engineering backgrounds are in particular demand. So are those with experience in specific niches. If you’ve worked in the wine industry and have built up an impressive knowledge of grape varieties then you have a ready-made niche. 

Finally, a little tech-savviness goes a long way. Translators no longer pore over specialist paper dictionaries, typing their translations by typewriter. Computer-aided translation tools (CAT tools) are our secret weapon. They help us crack the back of big translation projects, maintain consistency, and save time. T

here are many CAT tools on the market, but you can get started for free with Wordfast’s free cloud CAT tool

Where can freelance translators find work?

Like all freelance careers, translation gives you more control over your earnings. The industry is certainly no stranger to microscopic and exploitative rates. But there are clients out there who are willing to pay well for professional services. With time, you’ll build up the expertise and experience needed to attract higher paying clients. 

Translation agencies are often looking for translators to fill their pool. Agencies come in all shapes and sizes: huge agencies, boutique agencies, transcreation agencies and other specialist agencies.

Working with agencies is usually less lucrative than finding your clients yourself. However, it does take away the headache and hard work of marketing to end clients, so is a good option for new translators or those who want to keep it simple. 

With direct clients, you’ll be able to set your own rates and terms. You’ll have the satisfaction of seeing the results of your project and be able to build your portfolio. You’ll need to build a professional website and be prepared to market yourself seriously.

Lacking experience and a qualification in the beginning, I started my career on a much-maligned freelancer platform. Although not a long-term solution, this allowed me to find out whether translation was a passing phase or a viable option, and build confidence and skills. If you go down this route, expect low rates with a pinch of salt and set yourself a time limit.

After a year of working mostly with translation agencies, my (in-person and social) networking and SEO efforts started to pay off. I am now in the position where I work mostly with direct clients and a select few agencies. 

My tips for parent translators

We all know that working alongside caring for young children is hard, especially if you have limited childcare options. If you’re not careful, even the most flexible work-from-home job can become stressful. 

Setting clear boundaries made the biggest difference to my stress levels. If anything, the boundaries were more for me than my clients: no one can force you to take a project.

After one too many stressful episodes of trying to complete a rush project with a crying baby on my knee, I realised that I’d need to get comfortable with saying no, or at least renegotiate project deadlines that didn’t work for me. Turning down work with super short deadlines or under a certain rate made space for clients who respected my time and skills.

Financial boundaries have also helped me filter out the dubious ‘opportunities’. The Talented Ladies’ Club Pricing Challenge was also instrumental in helping me define my minimum rates. After joining the challenge, my average hourly rate more than doubled, so I could work less hours for the same income. 

Finally, networking has brought in a lot of work for me. The Covid-19 crisis has made us muchmore comfortable with our webcams, and the good news for parents is that virtual networking looks like it’s here to stay.

If you view your competitors as collaborators then you may be the first person they reach out to when they need help on a project. Some of my biggest projects have come from colleagues I built a relationship with over email or social media. Yes, even those with the same skills as me.

As I’ve built my career in the world of translation, I’ve discovered inspirational mums who began their translation careers alongside bringing up small children. Some of these, including Corinne McKay and Tess Whitty, are open about how they built their six-figure businesses (USD). 

So is translation more than a gig or a student job to earn a quick buck? I should say so. If you view it as a serious career change option then it can be an interesting professional business that you can scale up and scale down as your family commitments change. 

Fuschia Hutton is a translator-copywriter specialising in marketing content. She works with Italian brands that span the breadth of this country’s offerings: from interiors, to fashion, and arts and crafts.

Useful translation career resources

Combining freelance translation with a family:

Networking groups:

The parents who are freelance translators Facebook group

Professional bodies:

Offer your language skills pro bono to build your portfolio and gain experience:

Photo by Content Pixie